When I began teaching theatre I inherited a program that walked on water. My predecessor had much success and I was filling big shoes. I remember when meeting him, he laid out the program and then followed with the students I ‘should map the program around.’ He introduced me to his top leads in name and told me to watch for them, said their talents will make the program explode.
I picked a show called ‘Antigone’ and cast the lead role with a young woman that looked like a Nicaraguan rebel walking down the hallway of the school. She hadn’t been on stage before. Another student read a monologue particularly well in my 9th grade English – Shakespeare unit and I suggested he try out. I gave him his first role. My lead male in the production had been skipping class all semester but I couldn’t deny his talents. I remember the leads I had been referred to being quite upset with the roles they received and this began a journey for me that mapped out my next 25 years as a theatre coach.
I remember first getting the job and being rather stunned I was given a theater right out of the gates. I was an English teacher with a desire to teach theatre to students and I was fresh meat. Both the former and present students would test me to my limits and it was there I cut my teeth in my first few years.
I had a central goal that was always in the forefront of my mind. That was, to give any student the opportunity to be on stage, no matter the history or background each student brought to the program. I became a teacher to do the very same, to grab those students out of the hallways that had no place to stand among their peers and create a family of actors and drama kids. When I was in high school I was neglected and felt discounted and I believed every student I saw in the same position deserved peace in their lives. Theatre would be a vehicle to help achieve that goal.
That first show had many thrills and demons by the time we reached a performance level. That young woman in the hallway, the student with the class monologue, the skipper all performed at their top level and everyone contributed to a satisfying experience on stage. I found students in the wood work to come in and build the set, students to run the technical aspects and even those students that wanted to design and post the billings to gain an audience for the shows.
I remember posting my cast list at 7:30 in the morning with so much excitement in my mind that I forgot completely about the reaction I would endure the entire school day. That was the last time I posted a cast list before the end of the school day. I had to put out fires all morning and throughout the school day with students either excited or ready to take me out in the parking lot after school. I realized they often would need the weekend to soften the blow of not receiving the role they wanted or come down from the clouds with the exciting role they received.
That rebel was beside herself pumped and terrified at the same time. That student with the Shakespeare monologue had to rearrange his football practice schedule so that he could participate. That lead male skipped school the next day. The former leads glared at me the rest of the production. I remember after the first performance the football player giving me a big hug, telling me this was the greatest moment of his life. I had coffee with him twenty years later and he recited that very poem from Shakespeare without flaw. Blew me away.
I think what is true about being an advisor is that whether we believe it or not we influence the lives of our student participant. Eventually my absent student began attending class regularly, and managed to graduate with all of his credits by the end of the school year. He and all of his teachers thanked me at graduation, me who just wanted to run a theater program.
The beauty of theatre is that students play a role whether it is behind the scenes or on stage with a new found commitment to being part of the whole. I think theatre brings out the best in students and I have always been blessed with the opportunity to be impacted and influence the lives of high school students.
The stage really can be a place where a teenager can begin to find themselves if they are lost.
© Thom Amundsen 3/2022
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